Skip to content

Posts from the ‘Rock music’ Category

Peter Hammill’s ‘From the Trees’

PETER_HAMMILL_London_2018_2_photo_credit_James_Sharrock

As skinny as a bread-stick, his white hair cropped almost back to his skull, an outfit of loose white shirt and trousers giving him (somewhat deceptively) the austere, elevated air of a Zen monk, Peter Hammill took the stage at the Queen Elizabeth Hall last Friday with only a grand piano and an acoustic guitar for company. He was welcomed by an audience which recognised that at this stage of a 50-year journey that started with the rock band Van Der Graaf Generator, he is one of the few members of his generation who still has something to say.

It’s always intrigued me why, despite its post-war outpouring of great popular music, Britain has produced so few male singer-songwriters to rank alongside Jacques Brel, Lucio Dalla, Paolo Conte, Julien Clerc, Leonard Cohen or Randy Newman in terms of maturity, wisdom, observational gifts, craft skills and performing character. I think it’s because so many of the potential candidates came up in bands, and retained that mentality even in their solo careers, continuing to make records that very successfully put a concentration on musical (instrumental) style and content on an equal level with songwriting substance — as David Bowie did, for instance.

There have been exceptions. Paul Buchanan is one. Hammill is another, writing what might be called art songs and recording them in way that pays no attention to anything other than the songs’ demands. On his new album, From the Trees, recorded and mixed by himself at his own West Country studio, he contributes all the instruments (keyboards, guitars, bass guitar) and vocals (lead and backing), deploying his resources with fastidious restraint. There’s an exact understanding of what is needed at all times and an instinct for diversity, from the wonky minuet of “Reputation” and the pensive chorale of “What Lies Ahead” to the opening synth cloud and swooning clustered voices of “On Deaf Ears”, the folk-rocky electric guitar of “My Unintended” and the chiding Greek chorus of “Anagnorisis”.

Each lyric repays attention: literate, plain-spoken even when taking an oblique approach, never remotely pretentious (I had to look up “anagnorisis”, but was glad I’d bothered). The degree of autobiographical essence doesn’t matter, although the songs have the stamp of felt emotions, of a man addressing his own doubts and imperfections, his own perceptions of fate and mortality. I might be forgiven for following the clue in the title of “Girl to the North Country” towards the inevitable conclusion that this poignant song was inspired by Bob Dylan and his early muse, Echo Hellstrom, whose death was reported back in January.

The best of all comes last: “The Descent”, a work of quiet but intense drama dealing, I think, with the long-term consequences of auspicious beginnings and missed chances (or possibly something else altogether). But, anyway, it’s a thing of great elegance and beauty, its verses alternating bars of 4/4 and 3/4 to build tension before the cadence of the line smoothes out, with a strong vocal flighted in its finished studio version on piano, organ and Mellotron-like sampled strings. Correctly placed in the running order, it resonates long after the music has stopped.

At the newly refurbished QEH, Hammill ranged through the repertoire assembled through his long career, moving from piano to guitar and back, with great care taken at the mixing desk to enhance the immediacy of the sound of both instruments. His singing was highly wrought in its changes of volume and attack, as it used to be with VDGG, and well tailored to each song. Circumstances meant that I could only stay of an hour, but of the older material I was particularly struck by “Like Veronica” (from None of the Above, 2000), possibly inspired by the abused Kim Basinger character in Curtis Hanson’s movie of James Ellroy’s L. A. Confidential (“Wear your hair like Veronica Lake / And the bruises won’t show where he hit you”: the brutality of the lyric matched by the delivery). And most of all by an exquisite “Time to Burn” (from In a Foreign Town, 1988), a meditation on temps perdu much stronger for being shorn of the trappings of its original arrangement.

“The world has gone IKEA,” Hammill told Nick Hasted in an interview for the Independent in 2004, “and I’m a bespoke furniture maker. Not selling many, and only to people who find me.” They’re the lucky ones.

* The photograph of Peter Hammill is by James Sharrock. From the Trees is released on Hammill’s own label, Fie! (www.sofasound.com).

Buell Neidlinger 1936-2018

Buell Neidlinger w CT at Newport 57

Buell Neidlinger (bass) and Cecil Taylor (piano) at Newport in 1957

What turned out to be Buell Neidlinger’s final contribution to this blog arrived on March 9, in response to a piece about Keith Jarrett’s latest release. Buell had seen the accompanying photograph of Jarrett, Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette relaxing on stage at Boston’s Symphony Hall: “Thought I recognised the floor… worked there for three years,” he wrote. In 1967 he had joined the Boston Symphony Orchestra and also the faculty of the New England Conservatory of Music, where he taught bass and chamber music and, with George Russell, established the first jazz department of a major music school.

It astonished me when Buell sent some words to this blog, commenting on something I’d written about Cecil Taylor. His participation in Cecil’s trio version of “This Nearly Was Mine” made a huge impression on me when I first heard it in the early ’60s. It remains a favourite, not least for the way Buell’s bass shadows Taylor’s piano inventions with such devotion and beautiful note-choice.

As a young cello prodigy, born in New York City and brought up in Connecticut, Buell studied with Gregor Piatigorsky and had lessons from Pablo Casals. After switching to double bass, he played with Billie Holiday and Lester Young, with Hot Lips Page and Herbie Nichols, with Igor Stravinsky and Leopold Stokowski, with Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman, with Barbra Streisand and Frank Sinatra, with John Cage and George Crumb, with Duane Eddy and Roy Orbison, with Sir John Barbirolli’s Houston Symphony and Neville Marriner’s LA Chamber Orchestra, with the Beach Boys and Earth Wind & Fire, with Frank Zappa and the Eagles.

The instrument he played on “This Nearly Was Mine” was the same one he used on “Hotel California”. Once owned by King George III, it had been played in the first performance of Handel’s Messiah. “I sold it years ago to a girl in Hollywood for $15,000,” he told me during the course of our only conversation, on the telephone from his home in Washington State.

He also talked about his friendship with James Jamerson, whom he had met in a Hollywood studio. Buell had acquired his first bass guitar in 1953, but by the time he bumped into Jamerson on a Michael Jackson date he had become a first-choice double bassist in the studio orchestras. “Basically he was through already,” Buell said. “When Berry Gordy moved to LA, he basically signed the death warrants of a bunch of great musicians.”

Neidlinger remembered the Motown studio in Hollywood as the first place he worked where they had a transmitter. “You’d cut your shit,” he said, “and you’d go out to the car park and listen to it on the radio. If it didn’t sound good, you’d go back and do it again.”

He also remembered Jamerson’s addiction to alcohol. “He was living in a motel on Hollywood Boulevard. It was pretty ugly. After we had a meal on Santa Monica Boulevard, he invited me back. Whisky and gin bottles everywhere. He had a sliding closet. There weren’t many clothes in there, but there was his upright bass with no case. He played Fender bass on the Motown hits, of course, but really he was an upright bass player.”

Buell had strong views about everything, including bass players. He thought Paul Chambers was the greatest bass player who ever lived. He liked players who didn’t try to play the instrument as if it were a guitar, playing too many notes at the top of the instrument’s range. (This was a man whose first paying job in New York was as a dep for the ailing Walter Page, who had been the bassist in Count Basie’s pre-war band.) When Maurice White died, he sent a note to the blog saying that the EW&F man was the greatest drummer he’d ever recorded with.

In his later years Buell moved to Washington State, where he lived with his wife, Margaret Storer, another bassist. He had a group called Buellgrass, including the fiddler Richard Greene, which played his version of bluegrass music, and he and Margaret played baroque music with friends — he back on cello, she on violin.

Did I mention that he depped in Thelonious Monk’s quartet for a night at the Five Spot in 1957, alongside John Coltrane and Shadow Wilson? And for Charlie Haden in Ornette’s quartet in 1959, also at the Five Spot? And that his first No 1 was Tony Bennett’s “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”, on which he played in the string section? He seemed to have cherished every note, every encounter, every experience. I’m not sure there’s ever been anyone quite like him, or will be again.

Reuben Fowler’s ‘Black Cow’

reuben fowler 2

In my experience, jazz musicians tend to approve of Steely Dan. The mixture of sardonic outlook, funny chords and respect for fine improvisers seems to do it. Herbie Hancock, Ahmad Jamal, Christian McBride and Mel Tormé were among those who covered their songs. A few months ago I enjoyed hearing the students of the Guildhall School of Music’s jazz course performing variations on Donald Fagen’s classic album, The Nightfly. Now comes Reuben Fowler, a gifted young London-based trumpeter, composer and arranger, with a download-only big band version of “Black Cow” — track one of the Dan’s album Aja — whose proceeds will go to Cancer Research’s oesophageal cancer unit, in memory of Walter Becker.

Steely Dan’s music wasn’t jazz. A rock body with a jazz head, maybe. Anyway, it responds well to being played by jazz musicians, as it usually was on the original albums, as long as they don’t try to play tricks with it. Fowler’s “Black Cow” is respectful to the work put in on the slinky groove of the original by the likes of Joe Sample, Victor Feldman, Larry Carlton, Chuck Rainey and Paul Humphrey. Jason Rebello (Fender Rhodes piano), Rob Luft (guitar), Lawrence Cottle (bass guitar) and Ian Thomas (drums) hit all the marks, while Paul Booth’s muscular tenor solo loses nothing by a comparison with Tom Scott’s original. The Average White Band’s Hamish Stuart does a great job with the enigmatic lyric — a little hoarser and more wearied than Fagen, but that works, too. Fowler’s arrangement wisely plays it cool until the finale, when the power of four trumpets, four trombones and eight reeds filters through to stirring effect.

I’m not normally a fan of downloads and streaming, for reasons mostly to do with the shamefully inadequate way they remunerate the artists. In this instance, however, the music and the motive make it a must. It’s also a nice way to celebrate Aja‘s 40th anniversary (which was actually last September). And at some time in the future Fowler — who was born 12 years after that album made its appearance — might put together a whole album of this stuff, which would be a very nice thing indeed to have.

* “Black Cow” by the Reuben Fowler Big Band is released on the Ubuntu label and can be found on the regular download and streaming platforms, including Apple Music, Spotify, Deezer and Tidal. The photograph of Fowler is by James Gardiner Bateman.

1965: Annus mirabilis

Jon Savage 1965

When Jon Savage compiled his excellent 2-CD sets of hits and curiosities from 1966 and 1967 for Ace Records, he was just clearing his throat. Now, with 1965: The Year the Sixties Ignited, he arrives at the real point of the exercise: a celebration of the best year in the history of popular music. OK, I’m biased: I was 18, which is a pretty important age to be. Jon’s selection of 48 tracks on two discs is characteristically idiosyncratic and stimulating; mine would be very different. I loved 1965 while it was happening, and I’ve felt that way ever since. Twenty years ago I wrote a piece about it for the Independent on Sunday’s Review section, and then expanded it slightly for inclusion in a collection of my music pieces titled Long Distance Call. Here, because you almost certainly won’t have read it in either form, is a truncated version.

 

Bob Dylan 1965 ticket

IT’S A FRIDAY evening in the spring of 1965. In a house in the Midlands, an 18-year-old boy is waiting to take a 17-year-girl to the opening night of Bob Dylan’s first British concert tour. He has two tickets in his pocket. Sheffield City Hall, grand circle, second row, seven shillings and sixpence each.

The television is on as they prepare to leave her parents’ house. It’s Ready Steady Go!, live from London, the weekly hotline to the heart of whatever’s hip. One of the presenters — either the dollybird Cathy McGowan or the incongruously avuncular Keith Fordyce — announces the appearance of a new group. They’re from America, they’re called the Walker Brothers, and this is their first time on British TV. Their song is called “Love Her”.

On the small black and white screen, the face of a fallen angel appears. The boy and the girl are already cutting things fine for Dylan, but still the girl freezes in the act of putting on her coat and, as if in slow motion, sits down to watch the 21-year-old Scott Engel, clutching the microphone as though it were a crucifix, delivering the straining, heavily orchestrated teen ballad in a dark brown voice borrowed from the romantic hero of a comic strip in Romeo or Valentine.

As the song ends and the image fades, the girl shakes herself lightly, refocuses on her surroundings and pulls on her coat. OK, she says. Ready to go.

A COUPLE OF hours later they would be among the first people in Britain to feel the impact of the new songs that were still a fortnight away from release on Dylan’s fifth album, Bringing It All Back Home. With “It’s Alright Ma”, “Gates of Eden”, “Love Minus Zero”, “Mr Tambourine Man” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”, a flood of dazzling images and ideas was released. “The lamp post stands with folded arms, its iron claws attached…” “He not busy being born is busy dying…” “To dance beneath the diamond sky / With one hand waving free… ” He was bringing the unformed thoughts of his audience into focus, inventing new emotions and redefining old ones.

Reeling out into the night, speechless with awe, saturated by those visions, they couldn’t know that Dylan was already bored with the way he’d been presenting himself up. The Beatles, Rolling Stones and Animals may have worshipped him, but he wanted what they’d got. Less than two months after opening that tour in Sheffield, he would convene a full-tilt rock and roll band in a New York studio to record “Like a Rolling Stone”, the first six-minute 45. In July he took a band with him on to the stage at the Newport Folk Festival, where he had been a hero in previous years but was now reviled for his supposed act of heresy. Highway 61 Revisited and “Positively 4th Street” followed, in all their ornate mystery.

But although his change of direction was a shock, it was not a surprise. Because in 1965 change was expected: every month, every week, almost every day. Every time you walked into a record shop, opened a book, bought a magazine, turned on the TV. Between picking up your coat and putting it on.

THE YEAR 1965 started with the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feelin'” (the greatest of all orchestral pop records) and ended with the Beatles’ Rubber Soul (their most satisfying album) and contained so much great music that it would take a year to listen to it, even now. In the sense that pop musicians were still waking up to the reality of their own economic power, and had not yet taken the logical step of attempting to control the means of production, this was also the last year of innocence.

It was filled with perfect examples of what we think of as ’60s moments. David Bailey wore a crewneck sweater to marry Catherine Deneuve. Mods and rockers spent the Easter holiday hurling deckchairs at each other on the Brighton seafront. Marianne Faithfull, much to her own surprise, turned down Bob Dylan’s advances (she was pregnant and about to marry a man who owned a bookshop and art gallery). Julie Christie starred in John Schlesinger’s Darling and Jane Birkin flitted in and out of Richard Lester’s The Knack, giving us two defining images of Swinging London. The Beatles reunited with Lester to make Help!, played Shea Stadium, visited Elvis at home in Beverly Hills, and went to Buckingham Palace to receive their MBEs and smoke dope in the lavatories — not quite all on the same day, but almost. Liverpool, probably not coincidentally, won the FA Cup for the first time. Jean Shrimpton (whose sister was going out with Mick Jagger) lived with Terence Stamp (whose brother was managing the Who) and horrified Australian society by turning up to the Melbourne Cup in a simple shift dress that terminated four inches above her knees.

That’s how easy it was to shock people in those days. When a small rip opened up in the weakened crotch seam of the American singer P. J. Proby’s velvet trousers on stage in Croydon in January, he was banned by the ABC theatre chain and excoriated by the newspapers. When three of the Stones — Jagger, Richards and Wyman — were reported to have urinated against a wall at a petrol station on the way home from a show in Romford, they made the front pages and were fined £5 each. There was a fuss about these incidents but under the outrage, much of it bogus, there was a sense that they were adding to the gaiety of the nation.

In what was left of the real world of Great Britain, the Kray twins were being remanded, the Moors Murderers were charged, Harold Wilson’s government announced an “experimental” 70mph speed limit, legal blood-alcohol limits for drivers were brought in, and incitement to racial hatred was banned. Heath succeeded Home as Tory leader and declared his intention to take Britain into the Common Market — to which, in any case, the government had just applied for a £500 million loan. Internationally, the big issues were the Vietnam war and civil rights, both of which spilled over the frontiers of the United States and commanded the attention and concern of young people throughout the world.

In January, Lyndon Johnson sent the B-52s to bomb North Vietnam. In June, the first American troops went into action on the ground against Vietcong bases near Saigon; by the time they got there, the VC had vanished. The President’s answer: send more troops. the Rev Dr Martin Luther King was arrested during a voter-registration protest in Selma, Alabama; eight weeks later he marched back into town at the head of 25,000 people, protected by 3,000 federal troops and the camera crews of the world’s television networks. Between times, Malcolm X had met an assassin’s bullet in New York. In August, 28 people died and 676 were injured when Watts exploded in three days of rioting.

Everything seemed connected, somehow or other. When Cassius Clay beat Sonny Liston to take the heavyweight championship of the world, even that was part of the bigger deal: the youthquake, black power, the generalised feeling that the Establishment was there for the taking. Liston and Floyd Patterson, against whom Clay subsequently defended his title, were black, too, but other, older kinds of black. Clay was Dylan’s age, Jagger’s age, Lennon’s age. Our age.

And ours was also a visual age. Coming between the studied sloppiness of the Beat generation — sandals and shapeless sweaters — and the romantic self-indulgence of the hippies, it was the time of the mods, whose aesthetic may have ended up with the skinheads of the British Movement but had begun with better intentions in the jazz clubs of Soho, the tailors of Whitechapel and the liberal atmosphere of the London art colleges, among people who knew about Fellini and Jasper Johns.

Much of that came together in the Who, who began the year with the terse, staccato chords of their first single, “I Can’t Explain”. They ended it with the thrillingly anarchic feedback of “My Generation”. In between came “Anyway Anyhow Anywhere”, described by Pete Townshend, its composer, as “anti-middle age, anti-boss class, and anti-young marrieds”. If the Who had packed it all in at Christmas, after those three 45s, they’d have been regarded as the greatest rock group of all time, no contest.

British rock music, high on its own huge success in the US and fuelled by a profound admiration of Bob Dylan’s wilful unpredictability, was moving away from covers of Chess and Motown records and beginning to explore its creative potential. The Beatles started to enter the regions beyond two-dimensional love songs, distilling the darker complexities of “Help!” and “Norwegian Wood”, both indelibly marked by Dylan’s influence on Lennon, while George Martin’s experience enabled Paul McCartney to achieve the imaginative leap that led to “Yesterday”.

The Stones, with Jagger and Richards forced into the role of composers by their manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, who recognised the value of copyrights, used the influence of Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters to create the template for riff-based rock music with “The Last Time” and “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”, benefitting from Keith’s acquisition of something called a fuzz box and from the funkier ambiance of American studios. The Animals built a denser sound, more conscious of dynamics, with “We’ve Gotta Get Out of This Place” and “It’s My Life”. The Yardbirds were experimenting with mood and structure on “For Your Love” and the quasi-liturgical “Still I’m Sad”. Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames emerged from the Flamingo all-nighters with the finger-popping “Yeh Yeh”, the sound of an Ivy League jacket and a French crop. The Kinks progressed from the kinetic power chords of “Tired of Waiting for You” to the prophetic quasi-oriental drone of “See My Friends”, which anticipated raga-rock and a certain strand of psychedelia. The Small Faces (real, rather than art-school, mods) made their debut with the pugnacious “Whatcha Gonna Do About It?”, a healthy plundering of the chord-riff from Solomon Burke’s “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love”. Out of Belfast came the incomparably surly Them with “Baby Please Don’t Go”, a devastatingly supercharged version of a country-blues text, followed by “Here Comes the Night” and the opening chapter of the Van Morrison legend.

“Gloria”, the B-side of “Baby Please Don’t Go”, may have been the first punk-rock record. Or perhaps that was the pounding “I Want Candy” by the Strangeloves, a non-existent group created to counter the British invasion by a bunch of New York studio-hack writer-producers. Or possibly it was the magnificently silly “Wooly Bully” by Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs, or the Sir Douglas Quintet’s “She’s About a Mover”, out of Texas. Or, from New York once more, the McCoys’ “Hang on Sloopy”, a kind of punk-bubblegum hybrid based on the Vibrations’ vastly superior “My Girl Sloopy”. The year was full of one-offs like these as American groups (and the commercial interests behind them) fought back, producing guitar-driven music to counter that coming from the other side of the ocean.

The Byrds — not a one-off — took an electric 12-string guitar to his “Mr Tambourine Man” and invented jangling folk-rock (refined later in the year with “Turn Turn Turn”, their version of Pete Seeger’s take on the Book of Ecclesiastes). Music producer Lou Adler bought his staff songwriter Phil Sloan a corduroy Dylan cap, handed him a copy of Highway 61 Revisited and an acoustic guitar, and locked him in a Hollywood bungalow for a weekend. On the Monday morning Sloan handed Adler the demo tape of “Eve of Destruction”, an instant worldwide No 1 for the hoarse-voiced Barry McGuire.

Harold Battiste, a veteran of the New Orleans R&B scene, helped a couple of Hollywood brats, Salvatore Bono and Cherilyn LaPier, to become Sonny and Cher with “I Got You Babe”, a folk-rock minuet with an oboe where most records would have a guitar or a saxophone. Brian Wilson, fiddling about in his studio while the rest of the Beach Boys toured the world, pushed the enrichment button on surf music so hard that it turned into the sunlit symphonies of “Help Me Rhonda” and “California Girls”. The Everly Brothers, relics of pop’s first golden age, a duo with roots in the music of the Appalachian chain, were reborn with the crunching drive of “Love Is Strange”, as powerful a sound as any in the whole year,

In cities around America, soul music had reached its mature phase. Detroit’s Hitsville USA was in top gear with Marvin Gaye’s “Ain’t That Peculiar”, Martha and the Vandellas’ “Nowhere to Run”, Kim Weston’s “Take Me in Your Arms”, Jr Walker’s “Shotgun”, the Marvelettes’ “I’ll Keep Holding On”, Stevie Wonder’s “Uptight”, the Four Tops’ “I Can’t Help Myself” and “It’s the Same Old Song”, the Supremes’ “Stop! In the Name of Love” and “Back in My Arms Again”, and half a dozen Smokey Robinson masterpieces: three for the Temptations (“My Girl”, “It’s Growing” and “Since I Lost My Baby”) and three for his own group, the Miracles (“Ooo Baby Baby”, “Goin’ to A Go-Go” and the incomparable “Tracks of My Tears”). In Chicago, Curtis Mayfield was using the memory of his grandmother’s Sunday morning church sermons to create “People Get Ready”. In Memphis, the Stax house band was launching Wilson Pickett into “In the Midnight Hour” and Otis Redding into “Respect”. James Brown stopped off while touring to record “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” in Charlotte, North Carolina and “I Got You (I Feel Good)” in Miami, Florida.

That’s to say nothing of Barbara Mason’s swooning “Yes I’m Ready”, the Dixie Cups’ “Iko Iko” and Shirley Ellis’s “The Clapping Song” (which both found new uses for children’s playground songs), Lou Christie’s falsetto tour de force on “Lightning Strikes”, Betty Everett’s “Getting Mighty Crowded”, Tom Jones’s “It’s Not Unusual”, the Shangri-Las’ “I Can Never Go Home Any More”, the Ronettes’ “Born to Be Together” (their finest moment), the Drifters’ “At the Club”, Dusty Springfield’s glowing “Some of Your Loving”, Petula Clark’s “Downtown”, and the boiling, gospel-driven “Heartbeat Pts 1 and 2” by Gloria Jones. Or Dionne Warwick’s staggering “(Here I Go Again) Looking With My Eyes (Seeing With My Heart)”, the Searchers’ “What Have They Done to the Rain”, Wayne Fontana’s “Game of Love”, Fontella Bass’s “Rescue Me”, the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Do You Believe in Magic?”, Dobie Gray’s “The ‘In’ Crowd”, Little Richard’s utterly magnificent “I Don’t Know What You Go But It’s Got Me Pts 1 and 2”, and, to get back to where we started, two further Walker Brothers classics, “Make It Easy on Yourself” and “My Ship Is Coming In”. All of them — and many others — still played and recognised today.

MOST SIGNIFICANTLY, though, and paradoxically in the light of all this frantic activity, 1965 was the year in which pop music started to slow down. First there was the way in which the working process itself became more leisurely, a result of increasing affluence among musicians who had started out two or three years earlier traipsing up and down the M1 crammed into Transit vans, and the freedom it gave those who had previously been the slaves of managers and record companies. And there was the accompanying desire to spend more time creating records in the studio, exploring the potential of both the developing technology and the musicians’ own imaginations.

In 1965 the Beatles, as they had every year since signing with EMI, released two albums, Help! and Rubber Soul. The Stones released No. 2 and Out of Our Heads. The Beach Boys released Today and Summer Days (and Summer Nights!). That was the standard working schedule. But in 1965 the sense of artistic competitiveness was growing fast. The Beatles would hear the new Beach Boys single and know they had to top it. The only way was to spend more time in the laboratory. The following year, there would be only one album from each of these three leading bands: Revolver, Aftermath and Pet Sounds. And that would remain the pattern.

The music also slowed down in a more literal and far-reaching sense, thanks to the combined influence of James Brown and Andy Warhol. Together, the effect of Brown’s one-chord funk in the clubs and the influence of Warhol’s image-repetition in the art colleges began to thin out the music’s layers, simplifying its structure and reducing the density of its content. This was the birth of pop minimalism, and it also led directly to the inversion of what might be called the music’s weight distribution. Where the aural focus had been on the lead voice(s) — an emphasis reflecting the old “Vocal with rhythm accompaniment” tag that used to be printed on the labels of pre-war 78s, under the singer’s name — now the bottom end of the rhythm section began to take greater prominence. This shift of balance arrived hand in hand with technological developments allowing discothèques to install sound systems which played extra emphasis on the elements of the music that made people dance: the bass and drums. In that sense the most important records of 1965 were not “Satisfaction”, “Ticket to Ride” or “My Generation”, but “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” and “I Got You (I Feel Good)”, whose long-term effect on the time-frame and event-horizon of popular music is all around us today — in disco and house music, hip-hop, drum ‘n’ bass, trance, and just about everything else.

Buried within 1965, then, were the seeds of 1966, which also included the debut of Jefferson Airplane at the Matrix in San Francisco and of the Grateful Dead at the first Acid Tests. In November, the two bands shared the bill at the opening night of Bill Graham’s Fillmore Auditorium. That same month, on the east coast, Lou Reed and John Cale gave their new band a name under which they played their first gigs in a New Jersey high school auditorium. Around the corner of the new year lay Cream, Pet Sounds, “Paint It Black”, “Eleanor Rigby”, the aloof visions of Blonde on Blonde and the tumultuous tour that prefaced Dylan’s motorcycle crash. And The Velvet Underground and Nico, with which another future would begin.

‘Astral Weeks’ in Camden Town

Astral WeeksIf your name isn’t Van Morrison, it takes some kind of courage to tackle Astral Weeks, one of the sacred texts of the late ’60s. No one has ever really explained how the singer, his American musicians and Larry Fallon, the arranger and conductor, and his producer, Lewis Merenstein, came up with the unique blend of idioms that make the album so distinctive. Jazz, folk, rock and blues are all in there, but so thoroughly metabolised that the eight songs create, for the length of a long-playing record, an idiom of their own. In his lyrics, too, Morrison plunged head-on into a new world of poetic spirituality.

So when Orphy Robinson and the Third Eye All Stars presented the album at the Jazz Café last night, there was an element of risk. Morrison himself performed it in its entirety on a tour in 2009, but it was his right to do so, and he brought it off quite satisfactorily, although he couldn’t quite summon the magic that had occurred during three rushed days in the late summer of 1968, when he worked with musicians he didn’t know in a line-up that adhered to no known formula. The idea of someone else taking on this precious and delicate creation and trying to invent variations on its wild, hypnotic swirl of emotions seemed foolhardy, to say the least.

As it turned out, there was no need to worry. The 10-piece Third Eye band — Robinson on vibes and percussion, singers Joe Cang and Sahra Gure, flautist Rowland Sutherland, cellist Kate Shortt, Justina Curtis on electric piano, acoustic guitarists Mo Nazam and John Etheridge, bassist Neville Malcolm and drummer Mark Mondesir — chose not to attempt a radical reinterpretation of the material. They played it straight, content to infuse the music with their own freewheeling spirit.

A couple of solos — Sutherland on “Cyprus Avenue” and Robinson on “The Way Young Lovers Do” — brought the house down, while Malcolm and Mondesir did a fine job of following the template established on the original by Richard Davis and Connie Kay, who had no idea who Morrison was when they turned up for the sessions but found themselves devising a new application for their jazz chops in service of the grumpy little Irishman who barely spoke to them.

Neither Cang nor Gure attempted to imitate Morrison. They just sang the songs with a respect that did not prevent them from injecting their own energy into this hallowed material. I had never imagined that I would want to hear anyone singing “Madame George” other than its creator, but Cang — after successfully calling for quiet as the guitars strummed the intro — delivered it in a way that, like the whole evening, did no disservice to a high-wire masterpiece.

Lucinda Williams in London

Lucinda Williams 1It had been an enjoyable enough concert for the first 40 minutes or so, but when Lucinda Williams dismissed her band and introduced “The Ghosts of Highway 20”, the mood of the evening deepened. “I’ve been filled with the need when I’ve sung this song lately to say that not everybody from the South is a bad person,” the woman brought up in Louisiana, Mississippi and Arkansas told the crowd at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire. They knew what she was getting at.

Delivering the title track of her most recent album alone with an acoustic guitar, she managed to surpass the fine recorded version, which featured the entwined lead guitars of Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz. Somehow she found a lilt within the song that added an emotional dimension. It introduced the evening’s satisfying central section, which included the exquisite “Over Time”, from the 2003 album World Without Tears; it had, she said with pride, been covered by Willie Nelson (here’s their duet version), and in London the band found a lovely gliding gait.

Earlier she had talked a bit about how, when her long career began to take off, she was criticised for writing too many dark and gloomy songs. So it was amusing that, when she did lift the tempo to a rockabilly shuffle late in the concert, it accompanied a song (also from the last album) called “Bitter Memory”. And it’s true that the bleakness in her raw voice might not be what you want all the time. But sometimes she can confront a distressing subject such as her late father’s Alzheimer’s disease (in “If My Love Could Kill”) and make it not just painful but uplifting.

Another of last night’s highlights was “Sweet Old World”, the title track of a 1992 album which she has re-recorded in its entirety for release next month on her own label. It features the band with which she is touring: Stuart Mathis on guitar, David Sutton on bass guitar and Butch Norton on drums. They’re a capable unit, and Norton in particular is a fine colourist and energiser, but to me it was interesting how the evening lit up each time the music reached for something beyond the generic shuffle and boogie of the old roadhouse beside the two-lane blacktop.

Walter Becker 1950-2017

Walter Becker and Donald Fagen 2

Chinese music always sets me free / Angular banjos sound good to me

In a single couplet, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen made fun of themselves with wonderful grace and wicked sophistication: the qualities that imbued the music they made together. It’s so sad to think that the announcement of Becker’s death today, at the age of 67, puts an end to one of popular music’s great songwriting and record-making partnerships.

Amid the booming rock scene of the 1970s, in which anything seemed possible, Steely Dan made music that will last. That doesn’t make them unique, but it is a tribute to the enormous care and effort Becker and Fagen put into constructing the nine studio albums they made together under that name between 1972 and 2003. Their clever words, clever time-signatures and clever chords were the product of two enthusiasts dissatisfied with anything but the cleverest music they could possibly produce.

Fagen first encountered Becker at Bard College in upstate New York. He was walking past a building used for musical practice and heard someone playing a guitar in the style of Howlin’ Wolf’s records. The two bonded quickly over their shared interest in, as Fagen put it in his statement today, “jazz (from the ’20s through the mid-’60s, W.C Fields, the Marx brothers, science fiction, Nabokov, Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Berger, and Robert Altman films… Also soul music and Chicago blues.” All that, and much more, was in their music.

They were also unique in that, as musicians in their own band, they usually preferred to call on others to enhance their vision. Becker started as Steely Dan’s bass player, but he was also very fine rock guitarist — just listen to his lead parts on “Black Friday”, from Katy Lied“Josie”, from Aja and “West of Hollywood” from Two Against Nature. Yet he was happy to hand that job to a succession of players with different skills and sensibilities. Some of them were Denny Dias, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, Elliott Randall, Dean Parks, Hugh McCracken, Lee Ritenour, Jay Graydon and Steve Khan. The same would be true of the attitude he and Fagen shared towards the keyboard players, drummers and saxophonists they chose to articulate their vision: only the best, on their very best day, would do.

And so, very unusually in their chosen field, their wild imaginations were matched by their obsessively exigent craftsmanship. They were also some kind of weird cats. They were lucky to have their partnership, and so were we.

* The photograph of Becker (left) and Fagen is, I believe, by Anton Corbijn. I hope he doesn’t mind my use of it on this occasion. For the story of the duo in great detail, concentrating on the music, I recommend Anthony Robustelli’s Steely Dan FAQ (Backbeat Books, 2017).

Terje Rypdal at 70

Terje Rypdal 1If you were to draw a straight line connecting Hank B. Marvin to Jimi Hendrix and then extend it a bit further, the next point on the line would be Terje Rypdal, the Norwegian guitarist and composer who celebrated his 70th birthday this weekend with a couple of concerts at Oslo’s Victoria Nasjonal Jazzscene, an old cinema converted into a 300-capacity theatre for improvised music. I went to the first of the concerts, in which Rypdal was joined by the trumpeter Palle Mikkelborg, the keyboardist Ståle Storløkken and the drummer Pål Thowsen. It was an unforgettable evening, and a reminder of his singular importance.

When I first heard Rypdal, in Berlin in 1970, I had no idea that he would become one of the most interesting and influential musicians of my lifetime. Not long after that, however, I wrote a piece in which I ventured the opinion that if Miles Davis were looking for a really interesting new accomplice, he need look no further than a young guitarist who seemed to have a wholly original approach to things — and to tone and texture in particular. Perhaps attempting to give Miles Davis advice was not the smartest idea, but I still think it would have led him in a rewarding direction. After John McLaughlin, Rypdal would have brought something different to Miles’s world.

The son of a classical composer, Rypdal spent his teenage years with a successful Norwegian beat group called the Vanguards. In 1968 he became a member of George Russell’s European band, and in 1971 he released his first album on ECM, the label with which he has spent his entire career as a leader. (Mikkelborg, who is five years his elder, was featured on several of those recordings.) Some of those albums featured a variety of small groups, while others included compositions for orchestras and choirs. In 1995 a couple of Rypdal’s more noir-ish pieces were borrowed by Michael Mann for the soundtrack to his great thriller, Heat. Some years ago Rypdal endured a period of poor health, but he came through it and, although he does not move around so easily, his playing is unimpaired.

The Victoria was built as a cinema in 1915 and, apart from the swap of a stage for a screen, appears little changed. On Friday night it was packed to hear Storløkken begin the set with one of Rypdal’s ethereal tone-poems, manipulating his Hammond B3 to produce piercing textures. With the exception of a delightful duet by Rypdal and Mikkelborg (on flugelhorn) on “Stranger in Paradise”, a melody by Borodin borrowed for the 1953 musical Kismet, the programme explored Rypdal’s themes, which alternated between ecstatic skycaps and outbreaks of wonderfully thunderous hooliganism. The guitarist, manipulating the sound of his Fender Stratocaster via effects units and his volume pedal, and sometimes using a bottleneck, found the perfect ally in the organist, whose bass lines, played on a small keyboard, made the building shudder.

If you were to extend the line that starts with Hank B. Marvin beyond Rypdal, you would find people like David Torn, Bill Frisell, Nels Cline, Henry Kaiser, Jim O’Rourke, Hedvig Mollestad, Reine Fiske, Even Helte Hermansen, Raoul Björkenheim and Hans Magnus Ryan. All of those are involved in a new album called Sky Music: A Tribute to Terje Rypdal, released on the Oslo-based Rune Grammofon label. Again, Rypdal’s themes provide the basis. Frisell opens with a lovely meditation on “Ørnen”, Cline creates a lyrical meditation on “What Comes After” with the cellist Erik Friedlander, and Torn displays his extended techniques to fine effect on “Avskjed”.

These are all wonderful. But it is the group performances that steal the show. Supported by Storløkken, the bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and the drummer Gard Nilsen, the guitar squadron of Mollestad, Fiske, Kaiser, Hermansen, Bjorkenheim and Ryan — in various combinations, but mostly all at once — attack such pieces as “Silver Bird Heads for the Sun”, “Chaser” and a dramatic medley of “Tough Enough” and “Rolling Stone” with verve and devotion. My favourite track also carries the most appropriate title: “Warning: Electric Guitars”. The result is heavier, in every sense, than the heaviest metal, while being enormously creative and totally exhilarating.

The album was conceived by Kaiser in collaboration with Rune Kristoffersen, the founder of Rune Grammofon. I can’t recommend it too highly, particularly to anyone who has previously been touched by Rypdal’s work — or, more generally, to anyone with an interest in guitar music.

Beach Boys: After ‘Smile’

Wild HoneyIf you wanted to isolate an individual moment that summed up the curious position of the Beach Boys vis à vis the changing modes of youth culture in 1967, you might come up with the one in “Darlin'”, a single released in that pivotal year, when Carl Wilson sings a phrase written by Mike Love which lands precisely in the space between a letterman’s sweater and a paisley kaftan, between the disappearing culture and the emerging one: “You’re so doggone outtasight…”

After reading his autobiography — Good Vibrations: My Life As a Beach Boy — last year, I had quite a lot more sympathy for Love, although I’m still not sure that I’d want to be in a band with him. While disclaiming responsibility for torpedoing the Smile project, he made an interesting point: “Brian … had tried to take the modular format that he used for ‘Good Vibrations’ and apply it to an entire album, creating a nearly infinite number of ways that it could be assembled. Everything was interchangeable with everything else…”

That was part of the appeal for those of us who were excited by the rapid evolution the Beach Boys underwent in 1965-67. Brian Wilson seemed to be rewriting the rules of pop songwriting, moving away from the standard AABA and 12- or 32-bar forms. There’s plenty of evidence on 1967: Sunshine Tomorrow, a new 2CD compilation of material centred around Wild Honey, the album released that year as a kind of recovery project from the controversy surrounding Smile and Smiley Smile, the latter being the album that emerged from the ashes of the former.

Intended as a kind of palate-cleanser for the band and their fans, Wild Honey was inspired by soul music. Most of the lead singing was done by Carl Wilson, whose voice turned out to have a kind of ardent purity that suited the material — particularly the two great singles: the title track and the wonderful “Darlin'”. The source of the inspiration is most clearly expressed in a better than respectable version of Stevie Wonder’s “I Was Made to Love Her”.

The compilation opens with a new stereo mix of the complete album by Mark Linett and Alan Boyd. The original stereo vinyl release was one of those fake affairs so common in the days when the mono version was the one that got priority and the stereo was an afterthought (the same thing happened with Sgt Pepper, of course).  The Wild Honey remix is interesting but, like hearing stereo remasters of Motown recordings, it isolates elements that were originally intended to be merged. “Darlin'” is a particularly good example: we were never supposed to hear the horn parts so clearly, and the track loses something of its focus and drive as a result.

Still, it’s great to be reminded of the sheer originality of tracks like the whimsical “I’d Love Just Once to See You” (with its brilliantly funny and unexpected pay-off), the dark, driving “Here Comes the Night” and the gorgeous “Country Air”. And there’s a lavish helping of out-takes and session fragments from all of the tracks, plus the odd reject, all of which illuminate Brian’s working method. “Darlin'” has always been a great track to sing along to, and here’s an exposed rhythm track so that you, too, can be the Beach Boys’ lead singer. There are also some Smiley Smile fragments and out-takes, including an alternative mix of “Fall Breaks and Back to Winter”, the loveliest of Brian’s miniature tone poems.

Most of the rest of the album consists of live recordings — including 14 tracks cut at Wally Heider’s Hollywood studio. The idea was to add canned audience applause before releasing the result under the title Lei’d in Hawaii, before someone thought better of it. Of course it’s interesting to hear them running through the hits and the covers of “The Game of Love”, “The Letter”  and “With a Little Help from My Friends” in such a setting, with live vocals and no overdubs. There are also three tracks from an actual concert in Honolulu, with Brian replacing Bruce Johnston, who had been recruited when he came off the road, and a terrifically impressive rehearsal take of “Heroes and Villains”, plus three tracks from their US tour later in the year, with Johnston restored and Brian out. (“If you have anything for nostalgia, you’d better take it now,” Love advises a Washington DC audience before they launch into the ineffably gloopy “Graduation Day”.)

The whole thing ends with two total treats. The first is a voice-and-piano recording of “Surf’s Up” made in November 1967, during the final Wild Honey sessions, with restarts and adjustments, lasting just over five minutes. It also exposes the special sound of the doctored grand piano in Brian and Marilyn Wilson’s house at 10452 Bellagio Road in Bel Air, where most of these tracks were recorded: a 9ft instrument made by the Chickering company of Boston, Massachusetts, which Brian had detuned in order to make it “ring more”. It’s the characteristic sound of all the Beach Boys’ 1967 music, which is virtually devoid of electric guitars but full of swimmy organs and that strangely resonant, half-submerged piano. And Brian sings beautifully, as he does on the final track, an acappella version of “Surfer Girl”. Who could ask for more?

Steve Winwood in London

Steve Winwood 2In 1964, while just about everybody else was still learning how to be a musician, Steve Winwood made his first national appearances seemingly fully formed in every way: already, at 16 years old, a great blue-eyed soul singer, a lethal exponent of the Hammond organ and a fluent blues-rock guitarist. That precocity was both his great gift and, in a way, his handicap: he had less ground to cover in his adult years, and perhaps it made him less ambitious.

At Hammersmith Apollo on Wednesday night, on a rare return to London to promote a new live album, he began with “I’m a Man” and ended his encores with “Gimme Some Lovin'”, a tactic admission that he knew where the audience’s interests lay. In between came some lovely music that veered from hard-driving grooves to mellow reflection, assisted by a fine band: Jose Neto (guitar), Paul Booth (saxophones, flute and keyboard), the great Richard Bailey (drums) and Edwin Sanz (percussion). Some of the extended pieces — including a cover of Buddy Miles’s “Them Changes” — reminded me that Traffic, particularly in their expanded configurations, were a jam band as well as a songs band.

Lilly Winwood, Steve’s 21-year-old daughter, came with him from Nashville, where he has lived for many years, to play an opening singer-songwriter set which grew in confidence, despite the heat of the night making it a bit of a struggle to keep an acoustic guitar in tune. She returned to join the band for “Higher Love” and the encores.

Her dad’s voice has survived the years unimpaired: that slight straining in the upper register was always part of his soulful appeal. And, less than a year away from his 70th birthday, he retains the boyish silhouette of that teenaged prodigy who went off to get it together in a country cottage with his mates from the West Midlands, and the modest, unaffected charm of a man who held a special place in the affections of all Island Records employees in the 1970s.

I particularly enjoyed “Low Spark of High Heeled Boys”, seated in a very typical chilled-funk Traffic groove, and the beautifully poignant “Can’t Find My Way Home”, a relic of the Blind Faith project on which Steve played a very interesting Telecaster solo much closer to a country picker’s approach than to his regular Stratocaster style, itself on double-helping display in “Dear Mr Fantasy”. I’d like to have heard “Walking in the Wind”, “While You See a Chance” and “Valerie”, but you can’t have everything. At the end of a too-short 100-minute set, the standing ovation from a full house was well deserved.

* Winwood: Greatest Hits Live, a box set of two CDs or four LPs, is released on September 1 on Wincraft Records. It includes “Walking in the Wind”, “While You See a Chance”, and many other songs not played at Hammersmith.